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Up to 1 Million Iraqis Are Victims of Enforced Disappearance

FILE - Iraqis hold up portraits of missing relatives who were held captive by Islamic State group fighters during a demonstration in Mosul on April 13, 2018.

A U.N. watchdog committee is urging the Iraqi government to take action to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, which has resulted in the abduction and disappearance of up to a million people in the past five decades.

A report issued Tuesday by the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances, a body of 10 independent experts, is based on a visit to Iraq from November 12-15, 2022. Its authors express “deep concern” that the practice, which has persisted in much of the territory of Iraq since 1968, continues to be widespread and practiced with impunity today.

“The Iraqi state has not yet criminalized enforced disappearances,” said Mohammed Ayat, vice chair of the committee, noting that the committee received allegations of enforced disappearances from different governorates during the visit.

“It is therefore understandable in this context … to remind Iraq of the extreme urgency to criminalize enforced disappearance in the terms of the convention,” Ayat said, referring to the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s 2010 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. “The committee recommends the eradication of the omnipresent impunity of enforced disappearance.”

During their visit, the human rights experts interviewed 171 victims and civil society organizations and met with more than 60 authorities from Anbar, Bagdad, Erbil, Kirkuk, Mosul and Sinjar.

The delegation also visited several prisons and received frequent allegations of secret places of detention.

“It is worth noting that the state party strongly contested those allegations,” Ayat said.

Committee vice chair Barbara Lochbihler described some of the people interviewed as “victims of enforced disappearance who survived and had just disappeared for a certain period … or organizations who worked on enforced disappearances.”

She said the committee met victims from all periods of time, including those who disappeared or had relatives who disappeared during the U.S. military invasion, which began in 2003, and during the proclamation of an Islamic caliphate over part of the territory of Iraq by the Islamic State — also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL — a decade later.

Lochbihler said some people testified that they were threatened by Islamic State militants and by armed groups that supported the Iraqi army and were behind the disappearances of many people.

“And we also met relatives who are searching for them, and they think they are alive, but they have no answers for that,” she said.

The report finds that during the period of the U.S. military invasion of Iraq, at least 200,000 Iraqis were captured, “of whom 96,000 were held at some point in prisons administered by the United States or the United Kingdom.”

Authors of the report said they received allegations that detainees were arrested without a warrant for their involvement in insurgency operations, while others were “civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The report documented new rounds of abductions and mass killings of Iraqi army soldiers or security forces from 2014 to 2017, when IS was in control of parts of the country.

Lochbihler said groups or cells that harbor IS militants reportedly exist in some places. Though they may not be active now, she said “they can be activated quickly.”

She said many people disappeared during IS’s occupation of Mosul.

“Those people are still in the hands of networks that enslaved these people, and they are either in neighboring countries or they are already in places of the Gulf Peninsula,” she said.

During its latest two-week session, the committee received 1,577 urgent actions from 22 countries to search for and investigate the disappearances. Most of those urgent actions, 578 cases, were received from Iraq.

The committee is calling on Iraq to establish a comprehensive search and investigation strategy for all cases of disappearances and to set up an independent commission to carry out a fact-finding mission to verify whether secret places of detention exist.

Iraq has four months to make comments on the report. The committee, which will publicize Iraq’s response, will follow up on the implementation of its recommendations to the country “through the procedure of reporting.”

The independent experts are urging Iraq to address the needs and rights of victims and to ensure that all “have access to truth, justice and integral reparation” regardless of their ethnic, religious or national origin.